Earleen Boylls was a victim of identity theft after a woman stole blank checks from her mailbox. Photo by Whitney Curtis

Earleen Boylls was a victim of identity theft after a woman stole blank checks from her mailbox. Photo by Whitney Curtis

By Nancy Johnson

Earleen Boylls didn’t have a clear view of her mailbox from her Evansville home. Unfortunately, someone else did.

In 2007, a woman stole a box of blank checks from Boylls’ mailbox and went on a spending spree. She went to Boylls’ bank and signed Boylls’ name on checks for cash. Posing as Boylls, she wrote checks for hundreds of dollars at stores and ordered electronics online, spending $8,800 in just a couple of days before Boylls could close her checking account.

Police arrested the thief, an experienced con artist whose trick was to visit rural mailboxes to steal credit cards and valuable personal information.

“The postal inspector was marvelous,” said Boylls, 69. “He followed the case like a dog with a bone.”

The bank refunded the fraudulent charges and now Boylls picks up her mail at a post office box. Still, it took six months to clear everything up, and the experience left Boylls feeling vulnerable.

“I had a great anxiety for a long while. It makes you wonder about all the what-ifs,” she said.

Identity theft from stolen mail is just one trick in the con artist’s arsenal, said Barbara Brownell, older adult crime victim advocate with the Area 2 Agency on Aging at REAL Services in South Bend.

She sees a lot of Medicare fraud. One frequent scam: A con artist obtains personal information on the Internet, then phones older people to tell them they are eligible for a free power wheelchair if they will just confirm their Medicare number, which is almost always the person’s Social Security number.

“With that number the thief could order a credit card or get a loan over the Internet,” Brownell said.

June Lyle, AARP Indiana state director, said, “It is a whole new world of fraud out there, and fraudsters change their tactics regularly.”

Volunteers being trained

That’s why AARP Indiana is one of the first 12 states in the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

The goal is “to give people the resources needed to identify and avoid identity theft and fraud, to protect themselves and their families,” Lyle said. The program is free and open to anyone.

AARP Indiana is training “Fraud Squad” volunteers who will make presentations about the Fraud Watch Network to community groups at libraries and service clubs, Lyle said. The volunteers will discuss how scam artists work.

The volunteers also will collect stories of scam experiences to be used in the presentations, to show how ordinary people have been swindled. To volunteer or to schedule a presentation for a community group, call the AARP Indiana office toll-free at 866-448-3618.

The Fraud Watch Network website provides information about scams, fraud prevention and agencies to contact for reporting frauds. At the website, people can sign up for Watchdog Alert emails, which inform participants about current scams. “You can forward these e-mails to your family and friends,” Lyle said.

The website also can help people avoid investment fraud, through tips and tools provided by the FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) Investor Education Foundation.

Lyle noted that “certain scams, including investment scams, can happen to people who are very highly educated and sophisticated in investing.”

Boylls is planning to volunteer with the Fraud Watch Network. “People our age grew up in a simpler time and didn’t have the scams that are going on now. Today, we need to keep an eye on everything,” she said.

To receive information by mail or to receive alerts by phone, call 877-908-3360 toll-free.

Nancy Johnson is a freelance writer based in South Bend, Ind.